Commentary: Serve U.S. fish, not Russian, in school lunches

By Pat Shanahan and Trish Dela Cruz

In this election season, it seems that Democrats and Republicans don’t often agree, but one bipartisan effort in Congress has the possibility to improve both Washington’s economy and the quality of food offered in school lunches across the country.

Our Congressional representatives are focused on closing a little known loophole in the Buy American provision of the National School Lunch Program that allows schools to use federal subsidies to purchase foreign seafood as long as it is cheaper than fish caught and processed in the United States. Why is that so important to Washington state? Seafood producers in Washington are some of the primary suppliers of U.S.-caught seafood to the nation’s schools, and they are losing out.

As an example, the loophole currently lets schools use taxpayer dollars to purchase Russian pollock at the expense of Alaska pollock. Alaska pollock, a member of the cod family, is a mild, whitefish that is very popular with students, and in restaurants and retail products worldwide. Although Alaska pollock is the nation’s largest fishery and accounts for more than one-third of all fish landed in the country, about 60 percent of the pollock purchased by schools is caught in Russia, and is most often processed in China.

Alaska pollock produced by the Washington seafood companies costs a little more than Russian pollock (4 cents to 6 cents more a serving) because it is superior: the quality is higher, it’s more nutritious, and our fishing industry operates under rigorous food safety and environmental rules that ensure safe, sustainably harvested fish products. Pollock from Russia often costs less because it is frozen, thawed and refrozen at various processing stages abroad, lowering quality and decreasing nutritional value.

Washington’s Alaska pollock producers provide thousands of family wage jobs, pay business taxes here and in Alaska, and serve as an important component of the state’s storied maritime industries. Fishing responsibly, supplying a superior product, and generating living-wage jobs makes our fish more expensive, but it is well worth it.

Local school districts and Washington’s fishing fleet are supporting legislative efforts in the other Washington to close this loophole and end taxpayer subsidies for foreign fish products. Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Washington, is working with Alaska Republican Sen. Dan Sullivan to strengthen the federal school lunch purchasing requirements. U.S. Rep. Suzan DelBene, D-Washington, joined by six of her state delegation colleagues, including Republican Rep. Jaime Herrera Beutler, introduced an identical bill in the House.

Congress should act now to adopt this commonsense fix to the National School Lunch Act. Bringing more high quality, locally produced fish to our schools will support local fishermen and protect taxpayers, school children, and fishing industry jobs.

Pat Shanahan is the program director for the Genuine Alaska Pollock Producers, a fishing industry trade association. Trish Dela Cruz is president of the Washington School Nutrition Association.

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